Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Chicken Bus Fever: Part V: North

The distances I covered in Guatemala are not remarkable. The whole country is slightly smaller than the state of Tennessee. Would anyone applaud if I said I took a bus across The Volunteer State? No, but crossing Guatemala by public mini-bus is a different matter. As I said, the distance from Huehuetenango is only 110 miles, but it required 10 hours of torturous, violent driving in a little mini-van with 17 people and a goat. I already explained that the only way to average 11 miles an hour over 10 hours is to reduce speed to 1 mph through the speed bumps and pot hole and land slide areas and then floor the accelerator to reach the next pot hole area at maximum velocity. 

So, I reached Sayache, which is in the northern state of Peten. I was not significantly far from Xela. It felt like I had been traveling for weeks but it had only been 4 days and the distance was probably 200 miles as the crow flies. But these mini vans must follow ancient river valley contours and if there is one structurally sound bridge in Guatemala then it must be a holy site off limits to vehicles because we never missed a chance to take the longest and most painful route to a destination. I preached this phenomenon the whole trip: How can an engineer build a bridge on an active volcano? How can a railroad grade be determined when the mountains are constantly crumbling from earthquakes? How can the  infrastructure be built up when one government cabinet after another is indicted for corruption and they are still trying to prosecute war crimes from 1980 because the court is subject to political change, which happens every season, so each case is delayed while new judges get up to speed, and they finally are in a position to make some verdict but are all thrown out with the indicted cabinet. It's ponderous. Never mind that even in the best of circumstances a cargo truck is expected to navigate roads so hellish that the main cargo on the road is parts to fix the last broken cargo truck. On the pedestrian bridge project in Nicaragua there was a broken dump truck stuck on this extreme grade that was so precarious that they needed another dump truck to use as an anchor above it in order to lower it back down the mountain. Well, how are you going to get a dump truck above a dump truck that broke down on the same steep narrow grade? And where do you think you'll get another dump truck? You think there is some fleet of dump trucks waiting in rural Nicaragua to assist rescuing a stranded dump truck? No, that was the one dump truck and it was broken. And the parts it needs require another dump truck to carry. This is only one small example of the difficulties. (eventually they used two tractors and chains to lower the dump truck down the steep mountain road).

 So, I admit the distances covered in this journey through Guatemala are unremarkable. Sayache is not far from Xela, but it is much different. Sayache has an old world charm that is not comparable to Spanish Colonial towns like Antigua. Although Sayache has a catholic church it is an original Guatemalan town.  For instance, if a bridge had ever been built over El Rio del la Pasion then I imagine the whole town would dry up because it is too close to the hub of Flores to require anyone to stop for the night. The economy of Sayache must be linked to the fact there is no bridge. Also, I saw a collection of motor powered launches so that river is used to transport goods from agricultural areas in the east and west. I should mention that all my travels were on established main roads of Guatemala. My experience is on the roads with the best conditions but if one were to take a left or right turn off that main paved road then they would instantly be surrounded by grass and dirt and fence posts made from tree branches. So I was well aware of how modern my travel conditions were.

Sayache deserved a month of my time instead of two days. If I had known how long my leather pants project would be delayed in Xela then I would have stayed in Sayache for weeks. I love Sayache not only because I was the only Gringo in town and the fried chicken stands were open late and I was never out of sight of ice cream, but because the center of town was a soccer plaza instead of a Zocalo. Or maybe I didn't find the Zocalo. Where I expected to find the Zocalo, what was officially called Parque Central, was a small concrete soccer plaza surrounded by street food vendors. This alone sets Sayache apart from most Central American towns. Also, the aspirations of the town felt in line with my own. It's hard to explain, but this town appeared content with itself, politically aloof, secure, comfortable in its own skin. I later read that a teacher from Sayache was honored from the town after retiring; he had taught for 50 years. 50 years! And that was not walking a short distance to a modern school building, no, he commuted by boat to communities with no electricity. For 50 years. It occurs to me that for anyone interested in becoming a teacher in the area, they would be told that the position was filled, maybe try another town. What? 50 years teaching in rural Guatemala? That means he survived a hellish military regime, a leftist revolution, and an era of drug smuggling. No, let's not make a movie about stories like this; let's have another James Bond movie. Yes!

Sitting on the edge of a river, sheltered by a tin roof, as a rain storm rolls and roils over the river surface of a foreign river is a great pleasure. All work stops, as befitting of rational people. There is no, "Take no prisoners" work ethic in Sayache that lashes laborers to death in their quest to modernize. For instance, they must realize that building a bridge would solve the transportation problem, and the river is not very wide, nor traveled by tall boats, yet it would sacrifice a secure source of income for many people in exchange for a short term source of income for a few welders, who would probably be cousins of the contractor, who would embezzle most of the money and leave a bridge half built. The loss would be too great and what would be gained? Well, trucks could continue without delay. But how would that help anyone in Sayache? The lack of bridge highlights their collective wisdom. If you look at a map of northern Guatemala you will see only two paved roads to Flores, the hub for travel to Belize. Two. One route is from the east area around Rio Dulce and the other is from Sayache in southern Peten, which has no bridge over the river. But the ferries I saw at Sayache have load limits. I think a tractor trailer could fit, but if it were loaded with metal I think it could also sink. And vans from Coban and Raxruha stop at Sayache, let passengers get out, and turn around to take passengers from the north to their destination in the south. Even though the vans could fit on the ferry, the protocol is to stop and ask the passengers to switch to vans on the other side of the river, paying for the short river taxi. It is no great inconvenience, but a bridge could affect that tradition with some unforeseen grief to everyone. I like tradition and I like watching all work grind to a halt when a violent storm approaches. This is an appreciation of natural forces that is absent in the Texas Oil Fields where people like Oggy actually end up wearing gas masks attached to long oxygen hoses to enter the flammable atmosphere surrounded these tanks of oil and install tank level floats or some ridiculous bullshit. Only a lightning storm would cause us to postpone work, and when temperatures plummet to zero degrees, so cold that electrical tape snaps into small chips and must be warmed next to the truck exhaust pipe, which is always pumping exhaust since it is the only sheltered spot to recover feeling in your fingers, then one is expected to fight the elements like a Martian colonist. Ridiculous. This ethic would be tolerated by the people of Sayache only if they saw the money involved, but on a human level this makes no sense so everything stops when the rain starts and people take a nap or ponder life.

I had high hopes to go to a gym and exercise my arthritic knees but the one fitness club in town had closed down due to something related to Zika virus. Maybe the health administration closed it. I could not fully translate the government flyer at the closed gate so I gave that plan up and went to the park to eat papaya and was immediately set upon by locals who wanted to learn English. I'm sitting there innocently watching a pick-up soccer game, kids playing barefoot on the concrete, I'm eating salted Pineapple and Papaya sliced fruit with a long wooden skewer as a fork and a girl selling gum came up to me and asked how do I pronounce the color "Amarillo". It seemed like such a specific question that I was slightly puzzled. Usually a person might say hello and then ask where I am from and if I speak English and how do I say "Hello" or "How are you?" But no, this was specifically how do I pronounce "Amarillo". This is actually the name of a city in the way north of Texas, named after the color of wildflowers. Ok, so I say, "Yellow." But the girl pronounced this like "Hello" or more like 'eHlo' because there are very few words in Spanish that start with the letters "ye". Almost none. But this word Yellow sounds more like the word for Ice in Spanish, "Hielo" and this is a classic language conflict where a native speaker of Spanish would be buying paint and ask for the color 'Ice' because in a panic they remember that yellow sounds like Hielo, which is the word for Ice and so they say Ice. The language blunders I have made in Spanish are comical at this point. For instance, I passed a tailor in Xela that was named "Tejido" so many times and it had a huge sign with a pair of scissors next to the word Tejido to the point I came to equate the word Tejido with Scissors. Well, add to that the problem that the real word for Scissors is truly Tijera, not much different than Tejido...and I go into a hardware store to finally upgrade my ridiculous budget plastic scissors with a quality pair of metal shears and I ask for some Tejidos and get a puzzled look because all I have done is ask for someone's last name, a common last name in Guatemala and it's like going to Home Depot and asking for Smiths when you want light switches. So many of these blunders, and these are only the polite mistakes, never mind that the word coger means "to fuck" but EScoger means 'to choose' and saying "I fuck an ice cream sandwich" in front of a bunch of children. Or another time where my crowded bus drove past my stop at the movie theater and I shouted impulsively in Spanish "THE BIG WHORE WITH A HUGE COCK!" because I had been trained in Texas to say this with perfect pronunciation. Honestly, the best case scenario with my Spanish is that no one has any idea what I am saying. So I am patient and understanding when someone tries to learn English, which is much more baffling linguistically than Spanish. I also spent an intensive month in England learning how to teach English as a second language, so I know the approach is not to simply repeat the word a bunch of times until the girl slightly improves her pronunciation. The problem with that is by the end of she will have said the wrong word ten or twenty times, and the right word once. So, the chances are she will remember some combination of the wrong pronunciations because she didn't say the right word enough times. The approach is to start the whole lesson from the very beginning, the actual physical movements required to pronounce this word, yellow. What does the mouth do? Where exactly is the tongue touching on the teeth? Is there a corresponding word in Spanish that can be compared? Well, I probably mispronounce the word Hielo, but it is pretty close to how I pronounce the word Yellow. Close enough to use this word as an example of where the tongue touches the molars in the back of my mouth and also how the mouth starts slightly open and where the sound starts in the back of the throat. There really is no point in repeating this word over and over and letting the student parrot some approximation of the word because the two languages only share an alphabet but the mouth does completely different things to pronounce the same letters. What are the differences? How can each word be broken down to the physical actions? Forget the meaning, that is the easy part. What do the lips and tongue do to make these specific sounds? That is the hard part and people who are good with languages are good at controlling and retraining their mouth to pronounce different words. It's a fun topic and I have employed my training informally but the classroom setting never appealed to me; it seems contrived. So this informal lesson proceeded with one word and phrase after another. At one point I looked for some chalk and a board because I was starting to use examples I had already used. And the instant this girl left to try to sell gum another boy took her place and asked how to say Futbol. This is translated to Soccer which is very close to the Spanish verb Socar which means To Tighten and also the word Socorro, which means To Help. So imagine if you are trying to get a soccer ball and you know the word sounds almost identical to the word that means Tighten and in your mind you are saying "I need a tight ball." but you know that is wrong so you translate it to a word that sounds slightly similar and say "Want I a sucker tight ball." This is definitely what I sound like in Spanish based on the expressions I get at the store, if they can understand what I am mumbling at all. I recall a discussion at the tailor where I was discussing the kind of color I wanted my pants to be and I said, "It's the color of a rabbit in the ocean, the ones you eat with lemon." And I said this is Spanish and they were polite and did not laugh. What rabbits swim in the ocean, they must've been thinking. I knew I had made some kind of blunder so I rephrased and said, "No, not rabbit. Bees. The bees in the ocean." Bees and Rabbits swimming in the ocean? Eating them with lemon? This made literally no sense, but these were highland Guatemalans who rarely visited the Ocean and I was a crazy bearded Gringo designing leather pants so it was feasible that I knew something of this big world that they did not. But the real problem is that these things I described made no sense regarding a color of leather. Then I really concentrated. The word for Rabbit is Conejo...and the word for Crab is Cangrejo. OOOps. And the word for Bees is Abeja. And the word for Clams is Almejas. And the word I was actually looking for is Oyster...which in Spanish is Ostion. The color I wanted was Oyster and I was talking about crabs, which are not oysters, but are crustaceans that I got confused with oysters and then I remembered eating clams in La Paz, but the sign advertising Almejas Frescas escaped me because I was drunk and eating them with a bewitching, venomous temptress at the time so I substituted Abeja, which means Bees, like Honey Bees that fly around and sting people. And to make matters much worse I had mispronounced and butchered the pronunciation of all the words to the point that it sounded like "Went I rabbits in the lemon sea. Is this that the color is want I. IF?" Laughable. I mean, the conversations I had regarding these pants should've been recorded as an example of pure verbal butchery, a mockery of all languages. Hell, for at least a year I thought the word "Listamos" meant "We are ready." because I was sure I had heard some people say that. I knew that "Estamos Listo" means We are ready. But I thought Listamos was an accepted abbreviation. But when I got back to Guatemala I heard someone say it a little clearer or maybe my ear has become attuned because they were actually saying "Alli estamos" which means "There we are." And they slur the words together so closely and quickly that the whole time I thought they were saying Listamos, but it was really 'li-estamos. Man, that caused me so much grief trying to defend the word "Listamos" which actually means "We are making a list" and all these waiters were polite with no idea what I was saying but smiled anyway when they asked if I was ready and I answered, "We are making a List!" Oh, what an idiot I sounded like. But with enough determination anything is possible. These anecdotes are endless so I sympathize with anyone struggling with English, especially a 10 year old girl in Sayache who speaks K'iche and whose sole English lessons were numbers and songs from the animated movie Frozen.

The unusual feature about Sayache is that there was no end to the kids and adults on the street, casually walking around, who wanted to learn English. I mean, it was one person after another, a line of locals asking me words one after another. They sincerely saw this like their only chance to ask a native English speaker how to pronounce words and I wonder if the bus routes in Guatemala aren't depriving an entire region of foreigners because the locals truly swarmed me with questions it sounded like they had been waiting months to have answered and no one in town could answer them properly. There were internet cafes so it's feasible to have internet chat lessons with English speakers, but I suspect this did not happen and they patiently waited for the next English speaker to be stranded in their central park. I would not mention it if I had ever experienced anything this bluntly eager in Central America. I've been asked to pronounce words out of curiosity but never did my brief time in a central park turn into an impromptu English lesson attended by everyone nearby. They sincerely wanted to hear the way a native speaker pronounced these words. This is the kind of class I wanted, sincere, motivated, engaged. They were not going through the motions, there was a burning interest in these words so I did my best to make some progress and think a few months teaching in that park would be time well spent. I mean, the town actually needs a native English speaker to give lessons. Maybe lots of towns need this but I can confirm Sayache actually is overdue for at least one English speaker. I spent 9 months in Xela and no one asked me to pronounce anything. After 1 hour in Sayache I had about 20 students taking notes and that was only after sitting down to eat papaya. So imagine what would happen if someone actually had a formal 2 hour English lesson every day at the community center? I imagine they would ask if it cost something and I would say, yes, it costs 5 words in English. Bring me the definition of 5 words and that is the admission fee. It was noteworthy phenomenon and I wonder if it was an anomaly or every gringo who spends a few days in Sayache gets the same treatment.

The town is only a few blocks square and I saw most of it even if my short shorts caused a stir as I walked down the street. I bought a leather belt with a horse woven in thread to hold my shorts up since my thin waist could not even hold up size 32 anymore. 

The hospedaje was not abysmal because it had a fan that worked. That's all I ask for in these lowland areas where mosquitoes flourish. The bed was horrible, but the fan made it tolerable. It cost about $4 a night and it had a single communal shower and toilet and the last topic I want to discuss here in Sayache is toilets.

I could write a whole essay on toilets in Central America but I will limit myself to toilets with no water tank. This was not the first time I had encountered these toilets but it was the first time I was shown how to use one. I did not take a picture and I can not find one on the internet surprisingly so I will simply describe what I encountered. These are typical modern ceramic toilets, but what is missing is the water inlet line along with the water tank. Yes, the water tank that is the thing your back rests against when you take a dump is not there. The toilet indeed sits over a waste stack buried in the concrete building foundation, but there is no water tank. So, the first time I encountered one of these in Nicaragua I had no idea what to do. Then I saw some big barrels of water next to the stalls with plastic jugs so I decided that, since the water usually drained from the water tank past the flapper and through a tunnel, I would pour water directly into that channel. Well, that didn't work at all. The toilet didn't overflow, but it also didn't 'flush'. See? The first time I encountered one I finally gave up because there is no mechanism for flushing. The toilet handle, the linkages, the float, the chain are all gone because they would be on the water tank, which is also gone. All that remains is the toilet itself, with no seat. No, toilets seldom have plastic seats and never lids. You simply sit on the ceramic. This is so common I don't think about it at all. Even my apartment today has no seat and because I am so skinny that my ass does not touch both sides of the huge toilet opening at once I must sit sideways on the toilet and hold onto the sink in order to avoid falling in while I take a dump. Whatever. At least this toilet has a water tank and water inlet. But in Sayache there was no water tank and I tried several times to pour water into the hole where water would enter had there been a water tank. Nothing happened again. My previous encounters with toilets with no water tank had been in settings in parks or bus stations and I had been in too much of a hurry to really dig into this engineering puzzle. In fact, during the recent drive from Huehuetenango, in that small town where the bus stopped and I basically collapsed from fatigue and stress, that public park bathroom had no water tank and I absolutely assaulted that toilet with the diseased contents of my troubled bowels and then failed to figure out how to flush it, but I had been in no condition to investigate so I left the problem to the people who rent it out to clean up. Now, at this hospedaje I decided to investigate. I poured water slowly into the hole where the flapper would normally be. I poured water fast. I poured water faster. I poured water slower. I poured two jugs at a time. I did everything I could do to replicate what I thought would get the toilet to flush and the toilet would not flush. It did not overflow but what basically happened is the water would sort of swirl a little and the level would not change at all and the shit would not flush away with that satisfying feeling of departure and turning a new page in one's digestive diary. Well, finally I was there for so long trying to get this toilet to 'flush' that one of the two other guests came out to use the toilet and he saw me and looked at me like I was a blind man at a striptease show. What was this gringo doing pouring all this water into the small hole? He demonstrated quickly and unceremoniously that I was supposed to take the jug of water and pour it directly into the toilet all at once. This totally contradicted reason. Imagine you have to take a piss real bad, like a gallon of piss, and you go to the toilet. Would you think that in the course of taking a piss you would actually cause the toilet to flush? No. Of course not. But if you could piss a gallon in 2 seconds that is exactly what would happen. You would flush the toilet. Now, the toilet would be partially filled with your piss still because that is what you used to force the water out, but the next person who pissed a gallon in 2 seconds would flush your piss away and the cycle would start anew. This amazed me. I was simply supposed to pour the jug of water directly into the toilet. Ignore the hole where the flapper normally was. Pour the water into the toilet and the effect of that much water on the dynamics of gravity force the water and contents that was in the toilet away and most of the water you poured in will remain. Now, if you pour only a glass or a few glasses or pour too slowly this will not work. That is why all these toilets with no water tank will have one or two 50 gallon drum nearby with a big gallon bucket floating in them. One must pour the entire gallon in at once, quickly, to cause the flushing effect. Amazing. This solved the riddle of what one must do to flush these toilets which are quite common in Central America that have no water inlet thus have no need for a water tank. These buildings often have a hand-washing basin somewhere nearby so they do have a water cistern on the roof, but the plumbing to the water tank either started leaking and was retired or else the toilet itself replaced something less modern and the plumbing didn't exist. The hospedaje, for instance, had a place to wash your hands and a shower was actually 2 feet from the toilet with no water tank, so it's possible the whole mechanism broke and was determined to be an unnecessary luxury. Why not capture rainwater in a barrel, via a hose from the roof gutter, and leave a gallon plastic jug that a person used to manually flush the toilet using water pressure? Why not get rid of the water tank and the water inlet hose and the seat? It makes sense in a place like the Sayache Hospedaje since this toilet in a concrete room is actually considered so modern that people rent it and pay no attention to the lack of seat or the lack of water tank. This toilet might be the only 'flushable' toilet they use for weeks because to the east and west for many miles you only get outhouses built over a pit dug into the ground.

I left Sayache thinking I could stay for months with no problem. I was in no hurry, but my casual planning of the trip allowed one or two nights in every location, even if it was only one or two hours from the last stop. This way I hoped to get a broad overview of many locations rather than overdose on one or two. So, after a traditional breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, coffee, refried beans and grilled banana I paid around 60 cents to taxi to the other side of the river in a long narrow wooden launch powered by a small outboard motor.

Throughout the daylight hours a mini-bus is usually waiting at the boat launch to drive to Flores so I hopped off the bow of the boat and I stepped onto the bus and found a seat for the next leg of the trip.

Part I: Pacific Blues

Part II: Sierra Madre

Part III: Mal Estado

Part IV: Jungle Love

Part V: North

Part VI: Ruined

Part VI.5 Sweet River

Part VII: Lost and Sick

Part VIII: Capital

Part IX: Coming Full Circle
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.